Sunday, June 17, 2001

"The Intercessor: Part 3"
The passion of the Holy Spirit inspires worship, instills a sense of community and creates compassion

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, June 17, 2001
Text: Acts 4:23-37, Genesis 1:1-8

I would like to suggest to you this morning that passion is a good thing. I couldn't help but think it so as I turned on the television this past week and watched the final game of the Stanley Cup play-offs.

Now, after Toronto had been exited by the Devils, I thought there was really no more interest. Nevertheless, I felt that I needed to tune in to Game 7 and, I must admit, I didn't mind who won the game, one team or the other, with the exception maybe of one thing: That is, that I was caught up, as many other great sports fans were, with the fact that a man who had played in the NHL for 22 years and had been an exemplary hockey player was probably playing his final game and having his last chance to win the Cup.

And so, in my heart of hearts, I really wanted this man who is 40 years old (and I must say I identify with a 40-year old now), I wanted a 40-year old to hoist the Stanley Cup if for no other reason than that I myself could go around saying: “You see, it's still possible to have physical prowess at my age.”

Anyway, I watched with great passion as Raymond Bourque and the Avalanche won the game. How fitting it was, at the end, for the captain of the team to allow Raymond Bourque the opportunity of hoisting the Cup. It was his final moment and his final game after 22 years. I could even hear this bias in the commentators' voices. They wanted him to win and their voices were cracking as they said what a wonderful thing it was.

But as Raymond was interviewed the next morning, he was asked: “How is it that a man who is 40 years old can continue to play for so long and not win, always with the expectation that maybe there will be another day?”

He said: “You know, there are two things that are needed if you are going to be a great hockey player and if you are going to have longevity. The first of these is that you need a commitment if you are going to go out there every single day and play your best. But then,” he said with a tear in his eye, “if you don't have a passion for the game, no matter what your commitment is, you will never really do it.”

You know, that got me thinking. I don't think that any great achievement has ever been made that has not required some degree of passion.

Sometimes, when the bones are weak and the muscles are strained and the mind is tired and the conscience is perturbed and there is that sense that you can't go on any more, no matter how good the task, you need passion to take you to the next level, passion to keep you going to the very next thing to achieve your goal and be able to do what you feel is right.

When you look, for example, at any social reform movement that has ever been, it is really the passion of sometimes only one or two people that has been able to drive the cause. Such was the case with Martin Luther King, for example, and the passion that he had for civil rights in the 1960s. Had it not been for a man who had that passion in his heart, I don't think that that movement would have achieved what it has. This goes for so many things. It goes for our faith, as well.

There are, in a sense, two forms of passion. The first form of passion is what I call an upward passion, a passion that arises in our hearts, and our minds, a passion that drives us to think of high things.

Just recently, I picked up a copy of Browning's poems. I always flick through these on hot, muggy days and get a little inspiration in the cool of the evening. In one of his poems, called Abt Vogler, there is a wonderful stanza, Stanza 10. This magnificent piece goes as follows:

The high that proves too high, the heroic for earth too hard,
The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky,
Are music sent up to God by the lover and the bard;
Enough that he has heard it once: we shall hear it by and by.

Browning was a man of passion and passion is something that rises up. It is something that fills us at times, but it seems that society as a whole, particularly since the Enlightenment, has in many ways tried to downplay passion, as if passions themselves are evil or incoherent things.

Alexander Pope was one such person, when he said: “The ruling passion conquers reason still.

There is a sense in which passion is actually something not that we enjoy, but something that we should go through in life to get to something more reasonable. Even the great Carl Gustav Jung said that passions that we have are like an inferno that we have to go through in order that we might conquer them.

There is a sense, in other words, that when we are passionate we have to get beyond our passions in order to achieve something more reasonable. Part of this desire, I think, is the desire for us to have control in our lives. The feeling is, if we well up with passion, we are out of control and somebody who is out of control is deemed to be irresponsible, or immature, or not fully developed.

So, therefore, we pour cold water on passion and, when we see people exude it, we try to assume for the most part that we are more reasonable, enlightened and above it all. The problem is that, when we crush that upward passion, at times we also have a similar crushing of a downward passion and the downward passion is, in a sense (I am using spatial things just for the sake of making a point), God's passion for us.

The story of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit is one clear example of God's passion, where God bestows on powerless people, God grants to people who themselves are feeling oppressed, a joy and a fire and a life and a power that they normally would not have. So much so that when the disciples went out into the streets at Pentecost, everyone looked at their passion and said: “See, these men are filled with new wine.” In other words: “They are not being reasonable. They are not being sane. They are not being balanced. They are out of control.” And in many ways the disciples were out of control. God was in control of their lives.

In one of Aesop's fables there is a wonderful line that says: “The passions are like fire and water. They make good servants, but bad masters.”

Maybe that is true at times with our passions. Maybe if we lose control they can lead us in ways that we should not go. But if we have the same attitude towards the power of God, then what we are doing is making God somehow accountable according to what we deem as being truly appropriate, rather than the other way around. What we often do when we suppress the passion of God, when we suppress the fire and the power of God, is turn our religion into a club, a club that establishes the rules of behaviour, rather than opening ourselves to the power and the passion that God has for us.

Now, in the text that we have this morning, we have a clear example of what happens to the disciples after Pentecost. Some biblical scholars have suggested that there were in fact two accounts of Pentecost - (A) and (B) - and that this is Part (B) and the other is Part (A).

I happen to think that there is a more constructive usage by Luke: -- that he is actually telling us something that happened after Pentecost. For what we read of what happens to the disciples is that, after Pentecost, they become persecuted. They are hauled in by the religious leaders. They are put down for their convictions by people in society. The disciples are now demoralized.

But we read that at the moment when they were demoralized they began to pray. When they prayed, we read, they were filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, at the moment when they were at the lowest, when in many ways the church could simply have come to a standstill, could have simply been written up in the annals of history as a brief moment in time in 1st-century Palestine, what we have is a group of people whom, in the midst of their persecution, rely on God and are filled with God's passion. It is God's passion and the power of the Spirit that allowed them to do what they did.

So I want to look this morning at passion in the religious realm. I want to look at two things that happened to the disciples because this is very concrete in our own lives. The first of these is that this power, this passion, initiated worship.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of preaching in a three-point pastoral charge in Wainfleet, Ontario. It is not very far from Port Colborne. I was the “anniversary preacher” in a congregation that had been around over 150 years. It was a wonderful time together.

One of the ladies who was an elder in the congregation came to me afterwards and we sat down for coffee when nearly everybody had left after the luncheon. She wanted to talk about the state of the church.

She said: “You know, Reverend Stirling, all I keep hearing from people is that the church of Jesus Christ is dead, and that what we should be doing is not bringing in a guest preacher, but putting up a tombstone on the front lawn.”

She said: “Every time I hear people saying ”˜Why don't you close your church?' ”˜Why don't you just quit what you're doing?' I'm reminded of a story I was told of two little boys who were Cub Scouts. The little boys had been out with their younger brother who had fallen into a lake. Immediately, they ran home to their mother, in tears.

“Their mother said, ”˜What is it, boys? What is the problem?' They said, ”˜Well, our little brother has fallen into the lake and every time we try giving him artificial respiration, he keeps getting up and running away.'”

Well, I sometimes feel that we, as the church of Jesus Christ, are like that. We somehow feel that we need to give it artificial respiration, that we have to contrive some means of causing the church to have power, or to have passion, or to have witness. The one thing we don't do is rely on the passion of God that fills the church with power and did from Day One.

Look, for example, at what happened to those disciples. When it seemed like they were drowning in a lake and everything was lost, they began to worship, and as they began to worship they concentrated on three things.

We are reminded in the text that the first thing they reminded themselves of was the passage I read from Genesis 1: that it was the very spirit of God that created the world in the first place; that there would have been neither night nor day, nor the waters, nor the earth, nor any of the creatures - there would have been nothing, had it not been for the spirit of God.

So they turned to that very spirit of God in their time of need and they understood that the very power that created the universe in the first place was the very power that was going to give them life now.

The second thing that they did was to turn to the covenant that God had with David. At a time when David was suffering the abuses of others, when it looked like David's kingdom was being crushed, they, in rather rude and crude Greek, gave a record of Psalm 2, Verse 2, where the anointed one was being opposed by the world.

The disciples thought back to David and said: “Remember, David was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit when it seemed that everything was lost. We must remember God's covenant with our ancestor David.”

Then they thought of Jesus Christ, and they thought of the covenant that they have in Jesus, and they thought of the fact that this Jesus who was crucified is now, through them, performing signs and wonders and healings and miracles.

They said: “Why now are we so upset? Why are we so worried? If the same God that created the world, if the same God that filled King David at the moment when he was being opposed, if the same God that raised Jesus Christ from the dead is now performing great things in our midst, why then are we really worried?”

At that moment, as a product of their worship, they were filled with the Holy Spirit.

You see, my friends, one of the reasons why I believe that worship is so central to the life of the church is that it is the constant reminder, as I said last Sunday with baptism, of God's covenant with us through God's covenant with the people of Israel, and through God's covenant with Jesus of Nazareth and that, as a result of that covenant, we are indeed given the power to live the Christian life and to worship properly. Unfortunately, many times there have been debates about whether or not this is even possible.

In the 19th century, many of the philosophers began to debate the issue of whether or not we fleshly beings can know the Spirit. There was a huge debate going on as to whether or not we really could be recipients of the Holy Spirit; whether, in fact, the infinite could be contained in the finite; whether or not we ourselves might know and appreciate the power of God. They concluded, I think, that they didn't know one way or the other; that there was a mystery to the power and the passion of the Holy Spirit just as, my friends, there is a mystery and a power to the passion that we have for one another.

Just in the way that we bond with some people, just in the way that we develop some relationships with others, so there is this mysterious quality to the power and the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is not for finite human beings to be able to determine God's place in the world. It is God who decides that, not us. What we need to do is open ourselves to the passion and the power of the Holy Spirit.

But not only does the Spirit initiate our worship of God, the Spirit also instills a sense of community. I sometimes think that there is a great deal of panic in the church these days.

I was very fortunate, over a week ago, to take part in a preachers' series at Metropolitan United Church and I really am grateful to many of you who came and attended and supported what really was a wonderful week initiated by that congregation. Again it gave me the opportunity to talk to different people in different churches, some of which are growing, others of which are declining. There really is within some congregations this great sense of panic.

It reminds me of a true story that I heard of a Mrs. Monroe of Darlington, Maryland. Mrs. Monroe had eight beautiful children. One day, she went away to the supermarket and when she came back, she looked through her front window. Five of the children were being particularly quiet in the living room.

She went in and put the groceries down. Sure enough, five of the children were there in the middle of the floor of the living room with five of the most gorgeous little skunks you have ever seen.

Mrs. Monroe ran in and cried: “Run, children. Run.” So each of the children ran, picked up a skunk and headed for the door. The only problem was, the panic in her voice so scared the children they squeezed the skunks and . . .

The lesson is: “Do not panic.” Right?

I think we sometimes do that. When we panic in the church and we look at declining numbers or finances or whatever it might be, at times we get so down and so dismayed that we forget that the church is not ours and that when we panic it is a sign, actually, of our lack of passion. For indeed, it is only through the grace and the power of the Holy Spirit that we as a church can be truly based on something that is lasting and that endures. All the techniques in the world for church growth will come and go but the power of the Spirit will not.

Look, for example, at those early Christians. When they were deflated and down and persecuted, the power of the spirit came upon them. What did they do? They preached with boldness the word of God. Boldness. Not calculating how it's being received, just passionate in its conviction and faithful to its covenant.

Another thing that Luke tells us is (and I think it is a wonderfully telling theme) that they were one of heart and soul; that their unity, as a body, was predicated not just on something that they had tried to fabricate, or on some clause or confession or creed, but was based on the power of the Holy Spirit who had touched the lives of believers. We read that these disciples were so filled with the Spirit that they made sure that there was not a single person in their congregation who was in need. Even someone like Barnabas, who was so touched by the power of the spirit that he actually sold his land in order that other people in the Christian community who were poorer might be supported.

This is not a political manifesto. This is a movement of the Holy Spirit. This isn't something that is contrived. This is something that is born in the heart and it seems to me that the truly passionate people who have been concerned for the welfare of others in the world are those whose hearts have been moved by the power of God to care beyond what even reason would suggest.

I was fortunate last week to be taken to Stratford to see Twelfth Night. I am always in rapture when I am watching Shakespeare. There was a wonderful moment, and I hate to say it, but it was by none other than Sir Andrew. In this, he was a bit of an idiot. (I see another Andrew who is a friend of mine in here. We are all idiots, really, by the name of Andrew!) Sir Andrew comes rushing in, and he says: “Methinks I have no more wit than a Christian.”

I thought to myself: “Actually, that is quite true. You have not more wit than a Christian.” (Although, I think, Shakespeare meant something different.)

Sometimes we do not have our wits about us. Sometimes our faith is so passionate that it is not controllable. Sometimes the commitment of the passion of the gift of Jesus Christ takes us beyond what even reason would suggest.

I went recently into a library to read about various missions throughout the world. I was looking at the story of missionaries in the 19th century, many of whom have been put down for the works that they did and seen as relics of a colonial era. Some of them were, mind you, but there were some great people as well.

There was one, Captain Shaw of the Salvation Army, who went to a mission in India. When he and his daughter and his wife arrived in India, they realized that they had taken charge of a leper colony.

There were three particularly outrageous men in the leper colony and they were presented to Captain Shaw in shackles and chains. The only problem was that the shackles and chains were rubbing their sores and they were bleeding. The men were really dying.

The first thing that Captain Shaw said was: “I want you to unhook those shackles. These men are to walk as free men.”

So the different people who were there agreed to this and they unshackled the three men. Everything was fine for two weeks until Captain Shaw was called away to go to Delhi. He realized that he would have to go overnight and leave his wife and his daughter in the compound. He was terrified and worried about these three men and about leaving them with his wife and child. Nevertheless, he felt the call of God. He felt that on the basis of all that he had preached he could do no other and so he left them all in God's hands.

The wife and daughter went to bed that night and slept through the night. When they got up in the morning, they found that the three men who had previously been in shackles were lying side-by-side across the front door. His wife said to them: “What are you doing?”

They said: “We know your husband has gone. We are here to make sure no harm comes to you.”

You see, my friends, the passion of the Holy Spirit that that Captain had for those three men bore fruit and it changed them. It produced compassion.

The earliest Christian community was so out of control that that is the kind of compassion they had for one another.

My friends, we all need the Intercessor. We all need the power of the Spirit, not so that we can simply lose control, but in order that God may be in control of our lives.

Come, Holy Spirit. Amen.

This is a verbatim transcription of the original sermon.